The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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March 2018

A Literary Hour: Darkness and Light

Barbara Alden


The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light:
they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,
upon them hath the light shined.
                            Isaiah 9:2

From ‘darkness covering the face of the deep’ at the beginning of Genesis to ‘the bright and morning star’ at the end of Revelations, the metaphors of darkness and light weave a poetic thread all through the bible. This is hardly surprising, as ancient cultures preceding monotheism recognised their dependence on the sun for light, warmth and therefore growth. This was accompanied by a need to honour the light and also to a consequent suspicion and fear of the dark.

Inevitably extraordinary myths and personifications were created, in attempts to understand the powerful forces beyond us. Also inevitably, poetry would then give deeper perspectives of emotion and expression, celebrating joyful brightness, yet also wrestling with fears of the unknown – including our own inner darkness.

Therefore this month’s Literary Hour will have a wealth of source material to choose from on the subject of Darkness and Light – from Mythology, Philosophy, Poetry, Prose, Diaries, and of course the Bible.

Admission is free, with informal gathering over tea & coffee afterwards.

A retiring collection goes towards maintenance of the church as a Grade 1 Listed building.

So I invite you to ‘Come Away,’ as the poet below suggests, to the metaphorical ‘Peaceful Wood’ (of Hampstead Parish Church!) to ‘bathe your soul’ ... and ‘Listen.’

James Weldon Johnson was a poet and leading African American civil rights activist. In this poem he implies that there’s a path beyond our inner woodland darkness, where the soul may be bathed with the light of heavenly harmonies.

Deep in the Quiet Wood by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)

Are you bowed down in heart?
Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life?
Then come away, come to the peaceful wood,
Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now,
From out the palpitating solitude
Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?
They are above, around, within you, everywhere.
Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come.
They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones.
Now let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale
Until, responsive to the tonic chord,
It touches the diapason of God’s grand cathedral organ,
Filling earth for you with heavenly peace
And holy harmonies.

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